Fragranced Consumer Products: Science, Health, and Policy Implications
November 3, 2011
This essay is in response to: What are the health hazards of exposure to fragrances in consumer products and cosmetics? How can our regulatory system effectively address such hazards?
is steeped in fragranced consumer products: air fresheners, soaps, hand
sanitizers, lotions, shampoos, laundry supplies, candles, and cleaners. These
products emit numerous chemicals, including some classified as toxic or
hazardous, and even some with no exposure level considered safe. But society
may not know about potential hazards.
products are associated with a range of adverse health effects, such as
migraine headaches, asthma attacks, mucosal symptoms, respiratory irritation, and
contact dermatitis.[i] And fragrance sensitivity
is widespread. In surveys, more than 30% of Americans report adverse effects when exposed to
fragranced products, and 19% report breathing difficulties, headaches, or other
health problems when exposed to air fresheners and deodorizers; percentages are
nearly twice as high for asthmatics.[ii]
requires the disclosure of all ingredients in consumer products, or of any
ingredients in a product's "fragrance," which is typically a mixture
of several dozen to several hundred chemicals, most synthetic.[iii] Ingredient
disclosure requirements depend on the product. For air fresheners, laundry
supplies, cleaners, and other products regulated by the Consumer Product Safety
Commission, ingredients do not need to be fully listed on either the label or
the material safety data sheet (MSDS), not even the presence of a
"fragrance." For personal care products, cosmetics, and other
products regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, ingredients need to be
listed on the label, but not the MSDS. For all products, the general term
"fragrance" can be listed on the label, or a related term (such as
"perfume"), rather than any of the specific ingredients in a
the perfect storm: Products are pervasive. Exposure to products can cause adverse
health effects. Ingredients in products are not fully disclosed.
formulations are not only confidential; they're also complex. For instance, analyses
of 25 best-selling fragranced products found more than 133 different volatile
organic compounds (VOCs), with 24 classified as toxic or hazardous under
federal laws, including 4 probable carcinogens. "Green,"
"natural," and "organic" fragranced products emitted just
as many hazardous chemicals as regular fragranced products. Of more than 420
chemicals emitted collectively, only 2 were listed on any product label.[v]
a product doesn't contain hazardous pollutants, it can nonetheless generate
them. For instance, limonene and other
terpenes, common fragrance chemicals, react readily with ozone in surrounding
air to create secondary pollutants, such as formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, acetone,
and ultrafine particles.[vi]
products can affect both personal health and public health. For instance,
emissions from dryer vents, during the use of fragranced laundry products,
include numerous VOCs that affect outdoor air quality, such as acetaldehyde, a
probable carcinogen and Hazardous Air Pollutant.[vii]
Like secondhand smoke, "secondhand scents"
can cause health problems for many people when others use fragranced products.
we do to reduce hazards? We can choose products without any fragrance, perfume,
or scent, even those called "organic" or "natural." While
"fragrance-free" does not necessarily mean non-toxic (because a
product base can contain other potentially toxic ingredients), the risks associated with exposure to fragrances
can nonetheless be reduced. (Note that an "unscented" or
"neutralizer" product can actually be a fragranced product with a masking
fragrance used to cover the scent.)
implement fragrance-free policies, as many workplaces, schools, and
organizations have done.[viii]
Public restrooms should be free of air fresheners and deodorizers, which mask a
problem and pose risks, especially for individuals with serious reactions to
them. Soaps in restrooms should also be fragrance-free, as many cannot use
We can support
the disclosure of all ingredients in products, and in the chemical mixture
called "fragrance" in those products. But we also need to support
research on how and why these products can cause health problems. Do problems
result from specific ingredients, mixtures, or both? Do problems occur because an
ingredient is synthetic rather than truly natural? And what are the biomarkers
of exposure and effect?
the perfect storm creates the perfect opportunity: We can use the case of fragranced consumer
products to improve our understanding of toxicity, the links between
ingredients and health effects, and the regulations and product testing
criteria that can more effectively safeguard public health.
[i] Elberling J,
Linneberg A, Dirksen A, Johansen JD, Frølund L, Madsen F, et al. Mucosal
symptoms elicited by fragrance products in a population-based sample in
relation to atopy and bronchial hyper-reactivity. Clin Exp Allergy
Johansen JD. Fragrance contact allergy: a clinical review.
Am J Clin Dermatol 2003;4 (11):789-98.
Kelman L. Osmophobia and taste
abnormality in migraineurs: a tertiary care study. Headache
Kumar P, Caradonna-Graham VM, Gupta S, Cai X, Rao PN, Thompson
J. Inhalation challenge effects of perfume scent strips in patients with
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Millqvist E, Löwhagen O.
Placebo-controlled challenges with perfume in patients with asthma-like
symptoms. Allergy 1996;51(6):434-39.
SM, Steinemann, AC. Prevalence of fragrance sensitivity in the American
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L, Janshekar H, Takei N. Aroma chemicals and the fragrance and flavor industry.
Stanford Research Institute International, CEH Review, 1998, p. 503.5000F.
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[v] Steinemann AC, MacGregor IC, Gordon SM, Gallagher
LG, Davis AL, Ribeiro DS, Wallace LA. Fragranced consumer products: chemicals
emitted, ingredients unlisted. Environ Impact Assess Rev 2011; 31(3):328–333
WW, Weschler CJ. Cleaning products and air fresheners: exposure to primary and
secondary air pollutants. Atmos Environ 2004;38(18):2841-65. Destaillats H, Lunden MM, Singer BC, Coleman
BK, Hodgson AT, Weschler CJ, Nazaroff WW. Indoor secondary pollutants from
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[vii] Steinemann, AC,
Gallagher, LG, Davis, AL, MacGregor, IC. Chemical emissions from residential
dryer vents during use of fragranced laundry products. Air Quality, Atmosphere
and Health. 2011.